The glass ceiling, the glass cliff, and the glass escalator
Systemic Gendered Discrimination

Some Glass in Need of a Good Smashing

There is so much glass in our culture today. No, not the glass in your home, the glass in the workplace. The glass ceiling, the glass cliff, and the glass escalator. Each of these problems disproportionately impacts women and people of color (POC) in their ability to succeed or maintain success in the workplace.


The Glass Ceiling

The glass ceiling: the phenomenon affecting countless women in their careers. Lately, mainstream media has capitalized on this hot-button topic. You can see it referenced in online newspapers, social media posts, and magazines. You can hear it discussed on podcasts or streaming shows and movies. But there is more to this problem than just blocking women’s upward mobility in corporations. There are several inequities preventing women from being successful—and not just in your standard white-collar businesses.


Even where pay equity exists, there are other problems that impact women. The glass ceiling isn’t just about promotion and salary. It’s about responsibilities, workload, and other benefits associated with a given career. POC experience worse conditions (and women of color even more so). Latinas, for instance, are significantly less likely to get access to employer-sponsored health care than white men (see Ryan Smith’s “Money, Benefits, and Power: A Test of the Glass Ceiling and Glass Escalator Hypotheses”).

Women are more likely to be given less responsibility in the goings-on in the workplace yet given much more work to accomplish in a shorter period of time. Many women expect this to be the case. Many of us women have been told by the older generation that we must be smarter and work harder to get ahead—yet fewer of us are told that the same amount of work will get us to the same spot or worse. Working in a female-dominated field, I felt like I had to constantly say “yes” to any assignment offered to me. However, the men I worked alongside had smaller caseloads and rarely worked outside of their scheduled hours. Research has shown that women are more likely to agree to do more if asked, and sometimes if just implied. This has been seen in taking on the bulk of household tasks, child-rearing, in the workplace, in academia, etc. (see Karen Pyke’s chapter “Faculty Gender Inequity and the ‘Just Say No to Service’ Fairytale” for more information on women in academia and, specifically, their role in service to the university). 


As women enter male-dominated fields, men start to leave—and they take their money with them. Education is a great example. When public schools were first opened (albeit only to boys) the classes were taught by men. Some unmarried women were allowed to eventually teach, but the limitations put on them were astounding–remaining unmarried, not being out after dark, no drinking, and a ridiculously low salary. However, schools soon realized that they could save money by hiring more women than men, so men were put in charge and women taught the kids. The average pay for teachers plummeted, further pushing men into leadership (to make more money, of course) and the once male-dominated field became female-dominated–and remains that way today).



Tokenism is a problem that has received much more attention in the media recently. This is where the glass ceiling truly begins. Token women in organizations are common (as are POC). This can have meaningful, positive impacts for a company, but there are problems for the women involved that aren’t as often discussed: 1) these women are likely to make less money than their male coworkers, 2) some women in these positions will view their rough experiences working their way to the top as a rite of passage and fail to raise up the next generation of women, and 3) women can fall victim to a related problem: the glass cliff. 


The Glass Cliff

The glass cliff is when a woman is hired to lead an organization that is struggling or destined to fail. It gives companies the diverse face that our society insists they hire. They get credit for the hire and then, if all goes as expected (i.e., poorly), that woman either becomes the scapegoat or will leave. If the latter, you can bet that she isn’t replaced with another woman (or POC) due to their perceived lack of leadership capabilities. In the company’s eyes, they already tried the diversity hire, now they can go back to the same ‘ol [white] men who have a proven track record of success to take over that position easily.


The Glass Escalator

Tokenism can occur in the opposite context as well. Men in female-dominated fields tend to get positive attention rather than women in male-dominated fields receiving mostly negative attention. This is called the glass escalator. The metaphor is a perfect way to describe what so many in female-dominated fields have seen firsthand. Men enter the field (often starting at a high pay rate) and quickly move into leadership positions. I saw this in my professional work on many occasions. A man was hired, completed training, and soon after was made a lead therapist. A job that would take a woman a year or so to attain was given to the man–who entered without experience–in a matter of months. This situation is not unique but didn’t make it any easier to witness. 


Unlike the problems that occur when more women enter male-dominated fields, an interesting thing happens when men enter female-dominated fields. As more men flock to the job and the total number of men increases, so does the overall pay. The higher pay then attracts more men and, while this might seem like it would benefit women, it eventually results in pushing out the female staff. Then it converts into a glass ceiling problem and women still aren’t benefiting. 


In male-dominated fields, women are paid less, work harder, and get less credit. In female-dominated fields, men are paid more, work less, and get more credit. There seems to be quite a win-win situation happening for [white] men in the workplace, whether it be in male- or female-dominated fields.

Trans-specific Research

Glass-related research has been done with transmen and transwomen, finding that transmen find their experiences to be better in the workplace (getting raises and promotions, being treated more as a leader, and having their suggestions validated more frequently by their coworkers). The exact opposite experience is often described by transwomen. They find that they end up working harder, for less money and prestige, and are often taken for granted (see Kristen Schilt’s “Just One of the Guys?: How Transmen Make Gender Visible at Work”).

Problems in Leadership

The problems of the glass escalator are prevalent in nursing, teaching, public relations, librarianship, banking, and social services. Each is a female-dominated field. Each has a higher proportion of men in leadership than in the makeup of the low- and mid-level positions. This could be due to the fact that male staff are also more likely to be mentored by those in senior positions. Familiarity with those in leadership can positively impact one’s career trajectory. But it’s more than that. People tend to socialize and network with people who are like them (See Mia Hultin’s “Some Take the Glass Escalator, Some Hit the Glass Ceiling?”). 

Why does all this matter? Our society is really pushing the equity factor. But when the current makeup fails to be diverse, we can get trapped inside the non-diverse glass cycle. White people are more likely to hire other white people. Men are more likely to hire other men. So, when leadership is full of white men, what else would you expect? 

(Cover image credit: Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash )


  • Jennifer Krebsbach

    I am a PhD student in sociology at the University of California, Davis. I broadly study gender inequity in organizations(, more specifically within the academic tenure trifecta (teaching, service, and research). My current research involves gender-based perceptions of discrimination in the workplace based on supervisory status and organizational size. Outside of academia, I volunteer with organizations where I am dedicated to helping young women return to higher education, fighting for equity, and getting student parents funding for childcare. I spend my off time going on adventures with my daughter and husband, reading Brandon Sanderson books, and playing video games—when time allows.

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